Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Super Six Major Conference Sleepers

Sleepers come in all shapes and sizes. They can be broken down into several categories. There's the low-major teams, like Winthrop, Oral Roberts, etc. that can possibly pull off a first round upset in the NCAA Tournament. The mid-major sleepers, the Southern Illinois' and Pacific's of the world, are teams that will put a scare into any team seeded in their fourth of the bracket. These teams have the potential to make a Sweet 16 run. The third section of sleepers is the major conference sleeper. These teams, usually seeded 6-10, are teams that were inconsistent throughout the season, but can win a few games in the Tournament to salvage their year. This year's group could just as easily be mistaken for favorites to make the Sweet 16; that's how deep the field of 65 is this season.

Notre Dame: One of the most talented teams in the country, the Fighting Irish are a few bounces from being at the top of the Big East looking at a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. However, they are 2-4 in their last six games decided by five points or less. Chris Thomas is one of the most maligned point guards in the nation, yet he is second in the Big East in assists and does everything for the Irish. Colin Falls and Chris Quinn are wings that can shoot the three from anywhere on the court. If either one gets hot, Notre Dame is very tough to defend. Their post players were the source of the lack of consistency. Torin Francis had a three game stretch where he averaged over 17 points and 10 rebounds per game, but he sandwiched that run in between a 5-game stint where he scored a combined 24 points. Dennis Latimore and Jordan Cornette both have the talent to give them solid production in the paint, but do not come through that often. The Irish are not that very deep, but that is not their problem. If they can start finishing out their close games, the Irish are going to be a team that can be around for a couple of weekends come March.

Villanova: Another team from the Big East, the Wildcats are finally playing up to their potential under Jay Wright. After starting off the Big East season slowly, they ran off a solid few weeks that included a thrasing of then-undefeated Kansas at home. They have cooled off since then and stand at only 5-5 in the conference, but they have as much talent as anyone. 'Nova is headed by their three guard monster of Mike Nardi, Allan Ray, and Randy Foye. Ray is one of the best shooters in the conference, and Foye is strong enough to get to the rim on any defender. Inside, Curtis Sumpter is somewhat undersized at 6-7, but he easily holds his own against bigger forwards and outplays most of them. The Wildcats really hit their stride when Sumpter came back fully healthy from his injury mid-season. Jason Fraser is also now back from injury and is making a huge difference in the paint. He is one of the best defenders in the Big East, and provides a nice presence on the block. Kyle Lowry is a tough-minded guard that gives them another scorer off the bench. If the perimeter plays are hitting their shots and Sumpter and Fraser can stay healthy, Villanova are going to be a tough team to beat in a one game playoff.

Georgia Tech: If you had asked me back in November if Georgia Tech would be considered a sleeper team for the NCAA Tournament, I would have told you to go home. Returning almost everyone from the National Championship runner-up, the Yellow Jackets were supposed to be a Final Four contender. That changed after BJ Elder's injury in January to Kansas. In his absence, they went 4-5 and fell quickly in the ACC standings. Even with his return last week, their seems to be something missing from this team. However, if they find it, this team could make a return trip to the Final Four. Tech has one of the deepest and most explosive perimeters in the country. Jarrett Jack is one of the most clutch point guards in the nation, and can carry the Jackets if needed. Will Bynum is nearly unstoppable at times, and BJ Elder may be the best scorer on the team. Isma'il Muhammed is the most athletic player in the country, and Anthony Morrow and Mario West are solid role players off the bench. Luke Schenscher has not played as well as he did in the NCAA Tournament last season, but Anthony McHenry is one of the most versatile players in America. Ra'Sean Dickey is going to be a very good inside player for the Jackets. With the experience that Tech has, and the talent up and down the roster, I can't imagine them not making a run late in the season.

Florida: This is the one team that could easily be a top five seed by the end of the season, as they are beginning to play some of the best basketball the Gators have played in the last few years. After a somewhat disappointing non-conference season, in which Florida did not grab any significant wins, they have stepped it up in conference season, moving to second place in the East, two games back of Kentucky. People began to take notice after they defeated #14 Alabama by 31 at home in early February. The Gators still have the trio of scorers that seem like they have been around there forever. Anthony Roberson, Matt Walsh, and David Lee lead the way for Florida, as they are the only double-figure scorers for them. Roberson has been a different player this season, less selfish and more about the team than himself. Walsh returned from an injury to provide a second option to Roberson. Lee still does not get the ball enough on the interior, but he provides solid scoring and rebounding in the paint. Corey Brewer and Al Horford have been a wonderful freshman forward combination up front. As usual, the Gators have waves of players off the bench that they can utilize. They don't pressure the ball as much as they have in the past, but maybe that is a good thing. Even though they have essentially the same players, the Gators are a completely different team from last season, which could pay off with a deep run in the Tournament.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats have fallen a little bit in the past few weeks, hence the reason they have a chance to be a potential sleeper in the Tournament. After starting 11-1, with the lone loss to Illinois, Cincinnati is 5-5 in their last ten games, although all of those losses have been to NCAA Tournament teams. Not as intense as the past Bob Huggins-coached teams, this edition is full of long, athletic players. However, as with the usual Cincinnati squads, the strength is in the paint, where Eric Hicks and Jason Maxiell control the area. They combine for about 29 points and 17 rebounds per contest. On the wings, the Bearcats are stacked with guys that can play. James White and Armein Kirkland can both jump out of the gym and stroke the jumper (both shoot 40 percent from beyond the arc). Nick Williams can get hot in a hurry from three-point land, and if he does, the opponent is in for a long day. The point guard play has been inconsistent, mainly from Jihad Muhammed. His assist to turnover ratio is only 1.3/1 and he actually lost his starting job in the past week. If they can get better and more consistent perimeter play, the Bearcats have the post combo to challenge for a Sweet 16 berth and possibly even further if the shooting improves.

DePaul: One of the most surprising teams in Conference USA this season, the Blue Demons started out with a not so impressive 8-3 non conference record, with losses to Northern Illinois, Northwestern, and Bradley. Since then, however, they have played well enough to stand tied for second in the conference, behind Louisville. They have won four in a row, capped by a 19 point victory over Cincinnati. They are led by conference player of the year candidate Quemont Greer, one of the most improved players in the nation this season. He averages 20 points and 8 rebounds per game, and has scored in double figures in every game except the first one. In the backcourt, Drake Diener is one of the best shooters in the country, hitting over 43 percent of this three point attempts. Sammy Mejia is a solid third scorer and a great rebounder for a guard. Aside from those three, however, theres not much else. The Blue Demons are not a deep team, but with those three leading the way, and some role player production from veteran starters like LeVar Seals and Marlon Brumfeld, they can surprise some people in the NCAA Tournament and make a run to the Sweet 16.

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